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Workplace Bullying: Since When Does Being Assertive Mean You Are the Bully?

Updated on November 7, 2011

I recently attended EEO/Sexual Harassment Training at work. The instructor immediately started the class by explaining that differences in communication styles and personalities do not constitute a hostile workplace. Harassment in the workplace is defined as being of a sexual or discriminatory nature violating state and federal civil rights laws.

So, now we have Workplace Bullying - a catch-all for those employees who cannot accuse their supervisors of discrimination because it does not exist. These are the same employees who cannot accept responsibility for their actions and want to make supervisors the "bad guy" for doing their jobs - taking steps to correct poor performance. Theories surrounding workplace bullying identify the best and the brightest in the workplace as the most common to be victims of bullying. Why are these employees targeted?

The explanation is that the bully feels threatened by the "star employee's" performance. Futhermore, theories involving workplace bullying claim that 80% of cases are women bullying women. The idiosy behind this theory is that women bully women to climb the ladder. Additionally, these same women bullies are protected by those in higher positions of authority. I read on one website that these women bullies are intially hired because of their perceived assertiveness; however, it is later discovered that they frauds - demons in business suits seeking to devour anyone (especially another woman) who stands in their path to success.

When a female supervisor demonstrates a communication style, especially towards other women, that is firm and direct, she is often perceived as being a "b_tch." A male supervisor speaking to the same female employee with the same communciation style is perceived as tough. In many so-called bullying situations, I believe the conflict resides in gender and communication styles differences.

Here is an example:

I recently witnessed a situation where a female administrative employee charged a female supervisor with workplace bullying. This employee had been addressed by both the female supervisor and the male supervisor for repeated poor work performance: attendance issues, failure to follow instructions, interference in matters that did not pertain to her, eavesdropping, and lack of confidentiality. When asked about the difference between how the male supervisor addressed these performance issues vice how the female supervisor addressed issues, the employee claimed that the male supervisor was just joking around. The employee felt that the female supervisor was picking on her because her communication style was firm and direct.

Ironically, the theory of workplace bullying also proposes that the employee feels that their job is in jeopardy. In the previous example, the administrative employee had only received two written counselings for performance issues - nothing to warrant her losing her job. As previously stated, the most common victims of bullying are said to be the top performers. Is that perception or fact? If it is perception, whose perception is it - the employee's? If it is fact, how could the person fear losing their job, if their performance is on record as being stellar?

My opinion is that the employee feels they do a better job than they actually do. The employee fails to hear constructive criticism and performance feedback. Instead of accepting responsibility for their short-falls, the employee finds it easier to believe that they are being bullied by a supervisor. And, the supervisor who is accused of the bullying will be the one with the more direct communication style.

In the example above, the administrative employee socialized with other female employees in the office - all with adminstrative responsibilities. The female supervisor; however, did not. This was not because she disliked the employee(s), but because she held a very high level of responsibility. The supervisor came to work to work. She was a highly regarded, highly recognized producer. Her workload did not permit her the time or luxury of solicializing. And, due to the fast-paced nature of the business, the female supervisor often corrected issues quickly and directly. The male employees in the same environment did not express any concerns with the female supervisor's communication style. The female office employees sided with the so-called bullied administrative employee (which consequently contradicts the theory that bullies are often abandoned by their peers.)

The dichotomy of the environment was eventually identified as hostile. The female supervisor resigned because she did not feel as if she could effectively perform. She felt that no matter how she attempted to change her communciation style, as long as an employee claimed that she was bullying them, it would be believed that she did. The female administrative employee remained employed in another department.

Returning to the EEO/Sexual Harassment Class that I referenced earlier, the instructor also clarified that it is not harassment if you don't say good morning to other employees. It is not harassment if your communication is short or if your voice is loud. It is not harassment if you do not choose to be friends with everyone in the workplace. It is harassment when you are discriminted against.

The female administrative employee was not discriminated against. Her hours were not cut. Her job responsibilities were not reduced. On the contrary, they were increased because of budget cuts. Her pay was not reduced. She was not denied transfers or promotions. However, the female administrative employee was held accountable for her performance short falls by a straight shooting female supervisor. The female employee was bullied. Or was she????


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